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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Upskilling for Automation in Northern Ireland

The UK, and indeed the world as a whole, is in the middle of a huge economic disruption. Over the coming years, automation and technological change – including analytics, artificial intelligence and advances in robotics – will bring sweeping change across many parts of the economy, making some of the ‘thinking tasks’ that up to now have been the exclusive preserve of humans, able to be done more cheaply and to a higher standard by machines. This will likely see automation reach mid- and high- skilled roles and sectors not previously negatively impacted by technological change.

IPPR has been undertaking research into some of the future challenges facing Northern Ireland. Our new research, launched today, shows that automation will be one of the key changes in Northern Ireland over the coming decades. Indeed, Northern Ireland faces the greatest disruption across the whole of the UK, with 48.5% of all jobs at high potential of automation over the coming years, higher than any other part of the UK. To be clear this is not likely to see jobs vanish, or half of the population made unemployed. But it will mean vast numbers of workers will see significant change to their roles, learning to work with machines and new technologies. 

In many ways, automation is already happening. Take a look at your local supermarket or car garage and you will see a far greater use of machines and technology than only a few years ago. But the scale of the adaptation required over the coming years will be significant and bring new demands for training and retraining from across the age spectrum. 

Automation, if managed correctly, could bring huge opportunities to those who do it well, bringing new ways to boost productivity, pay and prosperity.

However, one of the lessons from history is that at points of vast change, without action, new inequalities can be created. Indeed, in facing this new wave of automation we must avoid the mistakes and learn the lessons of deindustrialisation in Northern Ireland and across the UK through the 1970s and 80s, from which many parts of the UK are still recovering.

To ensure Northern Ireland can take the opportunities brought by automation, and minimise some of the potential downsides, our research points to the need to focus the skills system in Northern Ireland – schools, colleges, apprenticeships and universities – to prepare learners and employers for the future they will face. This means looking again at what people are learning through school, college and university to prepare people for this digital future, offering new opportunities to workers to retrain and reskill throughout their careers – lifelong learning will be incredibly important. It also means working with employers to help them to meet their responsibilities to realise the opportunities and meet the challenges they face, so that the economy can be strengthened rather than weakened, and so that social inequalities can narrow rather than widen. 

Our research shows that to prepare for automation and ready Northern Ireland for the economic and social upheavals that it will face through technological change, the skills system will be crucial. In many ways we need not wait for the politicians to take a lead to deliver the changes we need to see. Delivering a renewed focus on lifelong learning, changes in the curriculum, a skills system that collaborates rather than competes, and one that develops more extensive relationships with employers is all possible if the skills system, learners and employers work together. However, clearly without political direction and a clear strategy in place this may be more difficult.

The prize for Northern Ireland of getting this right is immense, but the cost of inaction would be large. Placing the skills system at the centre of Northern Ireland’s efforts to get ready for automation can help Northern Ireland to manage automation in a way that reaps its rewards and secures them for the population as a whole.

Russell Gunson is a Director at IPPR. He tweets at @russellgunson.

IPPR’s new report is the first of three looking at how we can deliver a 21st Century Skills System in Northern Ireland.